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Badminton complex mixes sport and socializing

Sport's popularity inspires new 12-court facility

Come for the sport, stay to socialize.

This could be the mantra of Badminton Vancouver, a 20,000-square-foot sports club set to open on Mitchell Island next month. Two entrepreneurs, both graduates of Langara College's international business management program, are looking to capitalize on badminton's regional popularity by drawing recreational players to the new 12-court centre where they can play, mingle and watch matches from an elevated mezzanine.

Why not go out for a night of badminton? "It can be like going with friends to go bowling," said co-owner Derrick Chow, 32, who played high school intramurals between classes at Burnaby's Alpha secondary.

Based on word of mouth and a personal frustration from lackluster amenities at existing badminton clubs, Chow and his business partner, Killarney graduate Dave Yoo, aim to entice customers with the convenience of a vast, 105-stall parking lot and the comfort of large, modern change rooms.

Plus, cue the mantra: "Our product is all about fun. The other places are all very much geared toward competition," said Chow.

Thousands of badminton players across the Lower Mainland regularly trek to Richmond where they play and compete at two of the continent's largest, elite public clubs, including Clear One founded in 2003 by Olympian Darryl Yung, and Richmond Pro, the largest badminton centre in Canada (second in North America) with 15 courts.

British Columbia is home to roughly 285,000 badminton players, nearly two thirds of whom play at least three times a year, according to Badminton B.C. Approximately 162,000 athletes play badminton at a medium or heavy level, the latter meaning they play more than 10 times a year.

The majority of those badminton players in the Lower Mainland travel to at least seven different "warehouse clubs" located in Richmond, said Ken Thiesen, one of two executive directors at Badminton B.C.

Except for private clubs, some with prohibitive membership costs and others whose programs are dwindling, Vancouver has no dedicated, public badminton courts. Vancouver community centres count several badminton clubs and although they lack a dedicated court, the multi-lined, multi-purpose gym floors at some locations can be converted to singles and doubles courts.

"Beyond that, I would say, if you wanted an open facility where they have coaches, I suggest people travelling to Richmond," said Thiesen, who said the interest in badminton is enormous.

"Since the introduction of the 'warehouse cubs' in B.C., it has changed the culture of what is occurring in badminton," he said, referring to industrial spaces converted into sports centres. "Across the country, people are starting to recognize that. If they want to train, they will come here." He also noted players leave B.C. for other Canadian cities, essentially following their coach to any destination he or she relocates.

When Yung opened Clear One nearly a decade ago, he said Friday night drop-ins were "like a night club" with lines "80 to 100 people deep on the sidewalk."

"It was quite interesting to see the people flock to Richmond. I had just opened to teach-I had a lot of students and they wanted to learn at a centralized place. I was teaching private lessons and then I went into group lessons, then we offered courts to rent for people and people would drop in to play in the evening. It became a social meeting place for a lot of people," said Yung, who left his hometown Victoria at 14 to study and train at St. George's. He is a Canadian national doubles champion, a Pan-Am gold medalist and finished ninth at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.

"Richmond is quite an Asian community and the sport is popular in the Far East," said Yung, who remembers being one of the few Chinese-Canadian families on Vancouver Island. "Bringing it here was something I always wanted to do whether it was for that culture or not. It's a sport I grew up playing,"

He opened courts in Richmond in 2003 and two years later added a second 13-court facility, and has since expanded to Coquitlam, Calgary and Orlando, Fl.

At Clear One and Richmond Pro, coaches include one-time Canadian and Chinese team national members. For the past two years and again in 2012, Clear One will host the Canadian national championships at the Richmond Oval.

Badminton Vancouver, located in Richmond on the edge of Vancouver beneath the Knight Street Bridge, will aim to find a niche catering to the recreational player.

"I'm aware of the competition," said Yung after a training session with a junior player. "We're a little bit different in what we do. We're really trying to teach very structured training for all ages, from the six-and seven-year-olds all the way to 70-year-olds. It ranges, and everybody can learn and everybody can have an active lifestyle."

For Chow and Yoo, opening Badminton Vancouver is a chance to cater to their own on-and off-court preferences as self-described badminton enthusiasts. They aren't known within the competitive or professional badminton community and come to the sport as recreational players and entrepreneurs.

Off-court perks include an online booking system. On-court features include 33-foot-ceilings and the same specialized flooring surface as seen at the Olympics. Drop-in fees are expected to be $20 an hour.

"We met a couple of years ago and enjoyed playing badminton socially," said Chow. "It's tough to get a court, even in the Richmond facilities. The sport is just that popular and we just loved it, playing badminton and hanging out together."

At Badminton Vancouver, sport is the new social.

Twitter: @MHStewart